Why it’s Hard to See Over the Fence: how Confirmation Bias Leads to Increased Polarization

In the age of fast media and technology, we are constantly bombarded with news stories, memes, and people sharing their outrage over current events. However, this flood of information exists within a bubble. If we consider the fact that we’re mostly friends with like-minded people, we are only ever going to see opinions or coverage that feed into our already established beliefs. 

In its simplest formulation, confirmation bias is having your own beliefs reinforced by your environment, by what you read, see or hear. There’s no way to combat it, because we like being right, which means that we’re more likely to look for news that reinforce our ideas. We naturally do not seek for information that contradict our original way of thinking. In the end, this feeds into negative viewpoints of anyone who doesn’t share the same opinions. Confirmation bias creates a bubble around us, causing us to never be fully aware of what is going on, due to the fact we lack the fundamental ability and will to find out. This happened recently during the General Election and Brexit – liberal-minded people shared news articles and opinions, and the sheer volume of posts made it seem like there was no way the Conservatives could win. To many people’s shock, we however ended up leaving the European Union and with a Conservative majority. Keeping ourselves to our comforting echo chamber leads to a lack of awareness of how other people might perceive an issue, or what could inform their opinions. If there were a will to try and reach some form of an understanding, the bubble would dissolve. 

Confirmation bias is unavoidable. With the way technology has developed, social media and internet search outlets will not show you anything other than news stories that will confirm beliefs you already hold. Considering that someone is unlikely to search for news outlets they do not disagree with. It means that at any one time the average person is only seeing one side of the debate. This leads to the solidification of partisan identities. This is undesirable, given that polarization is one of the greatest threats to social cohesion that we currently face. Polarization entails the division of society into two opposing and antagonistic groups, usually along social cleavages, but most commonly between the political left and right. This leads to increased social tensions, legislative gridlock and, often, to a democratic backslide. In some places, polarization has gotten so bad that many people don’t want to live near, marry, befriend or send their children to the same school as people who don’t share the same beliefs as them. This divides society further and as rhetoric becomes more violent, the chance for the reduction of polarization and the establishment of some form of dialogue between the two sides decreases.  This often leads to the fact that, as polarization progresses, people are willing to forgive non-democratic behaviours in elected officials as long as they’re from their side. Any protestations from the opposing group just feeds into the belief that they are out to get you. Through confirmation bias, polarisation becomes more and more engrained within societies.

When it comes to ideas which, fuelled by racism, nationalism, or general bigotry, which are in their turn fed as conspiracy theories, we see real harms occurring. News outlets monopolise on people’s outrage but, on specific kinds of sites, that is then turned into calls to enact violence on people because of their race or sexual orientation and generally promote the destruction of society. These sites are influential, and they are responsible for pushing people further into the right and making extreme conspiracy theories mainstream, which has then led to increased polarization and defensiveness from the left. None of the ideas perpetuated by any of these news outlets are helpful. Their purpose is, plainly, that of destabilising societies, feeding into already held ideas that the government is bad and doesn’t care about ‘ordinary’ people, or other existing fears. And because they are based largely on beliefs or fears that are already held, these conspiracy theories seem more believable or reasonable for the people who hold them. The result is the polarization that I discussed above, and this is just the most obvious side of it. 

We are all guilty of feeding into confirmation bias: since no newspaper or news organisation is actually balanced, our own opinions essentially permeate most things we will look at. This bias is especially hard to avoid because it proves you right, and no one really likes being wrong about something. It is human nature not to seek information that might prove us wrong.  This leads to an unavoidable, endless cycle of violent rhetoric. Though there is no way around it, we can still try not to let it add to the polarization it tends to enhance in society. 

[Katerina Partolina Schwartz – she/her – @katpschwartz]

[Photo credit: Getty Images]

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